Assessing the Economy, Perceptions Are Personal

The latest Allstate-National Journal Heartland poll, out this morning, provides more depth to an emerging thesis about the root of American economic anxiety. It's fairly obvious: Americans might look at the national jobs numbers to get cues about how they should feel, but their pessimism about the economy is driven by their personal situations, which includes the interactions they have with members of their peer group who may be suffering more than they are.

In a nod to fashion, Americans are skeptical of government intervention, but they are willing to tolerate temporarily increased deficits and more spending if they have reason to  believe that these fiscal interventions will add jobs.

Some highlights from the poll:

  • A total of 53 percent say their personal experiences, and those of family and friends, have the most influence on how they gauge the economy, compared with 43 percent who identify statistics such as the unemployment rate, the GDP, or the stock market.
  • Sixty-one percent say government should play an active role in the economy, though more than half of those express skepticism that they can trust government to do it effectively.
  • A total of 68 percent support either government support for critical industries (32 percent) or protectionist measures like tariffs and penalties for outsourcing (36 percent), versus 23 percent who support a pure free trade policy.

The point here is that Americans are willing to tolerate more government, but only if they can be assured that people who deserve the money -- workers like them, employers who will hire -- will use it wisely. They are most skeptical of anything resembling a bailout -- money that goes to people who don't deserve it. Additionally, the poll identifies a mechanism for spending that will please blue collar unions: Americans are very skeptical about trade, are almost obsessed with the notion that jobs are being lost to other countries, and seem to increasingly support protective tariffs, and, really, anything that will bring jobs back.

This helps to explain why a number of Democratic candidates are focusing on a trade-centric populist economic message. The fact that President Obama's economic record is assessed by nearly a majority of registered voters as having failed to end the recession or slow a record job loss pace (while running up a debt) explains why at least six congressional Democrats went out of their way to distance themselves from the President's latest, modest, stimulus idea.  HOWEVER, a majority of Americans -- about 55 percent -- believe that the sum total of the President's policies over the past 12 months are at least beginning to move the country in the right direction. And over the next year, 55 percent of Americans think the economy will improve. Only 35 percent of Americans believe the top priority of fiscal policy should be to reduce the size of government.

Also of note: Americans still trust President Obama to deal with the economy more than they do the Republicans, but by a lesser margin than they did before. Americans are aware that the Republican congressional agenda is similar to the Bush economic agenda. A majority of 56 percent favor allowing all the tax cuts to expire or preserving only those for Americans making less than $250,000 a year.